At-large elections of board members are the norm in New York’s towns, villages, and school districts, and are used in about a quarter of the state’s cities as well. Additional cities elect some, but not all, of their councils on an at-large basis. And in some counties, the use of multi-member districts to choose some county legislators is, in effect, the analog of an at-large election process.
The use of at-large elections is suspect under the Federal Voting Rights Act as a procedure highly likely to result in denying members of protected minority groups an effective choice at the polls. To date, there have been four major voting rights cases in New York challenging municipal at-large election systems, but not those in school districts. The 2010 election documented significant demographic change across the state—in particular, the rapid growth of Hispanic populations in suburban and ex-urban cities, towns, villages, and school districts. Combined with this development, the widespread use of at-large elections in New York may signal the future vulnerability of local jurisdictions to legal challenges under the Voting Rights Act. While these jurisdictions do not need to re-district simply because they elect representatives at large, the issue is closely connected to redistricting because the usual remedy under the Voting Rights Act is to impose district-based elections on jurisdictions that do not provide protected minorities with an equal opportunity “to elect representatives of their choice.”